Angelo Mathews’s 111 in the first innings of the Delhi Test, while nowhere close to some of his well-crafted tons in the past, was still one his best knocks, considering his indifferent form, poor fitness and the Indian attack. It was as gritty an effort as they come, but two slices of luck at second slip also helped Mathews reach the three-figure mark for the first time in Tests in 28 months. First, India captain Virat Kohli spilled him on 6, then Rohit Sharma dropped him when he was batting on 98.
Despite all the talk of India’s improved fielding standards, catching in slips has been an area of concern for Kohli’s team in recent times. In this match alone, there were as many as three dropped catches in the slip-cordon. If Kohli and Rohit were guilty of handing Mathews two definite lifelines, Shikhar Dhawan grassed Dilruwan Perera at second slip early in the first innings. Further evidence of the confusion that prevails in the slip-cordon is that even the likes of Ravichandran Ashwin have been tried in that position in the past one year.
Cheteshwar Pujara, India’s No.3, and someone who is adept at slips, admitted that slip-catching was an area of concern for the team ahead of their upcoming tour of South Africa.
“We are having a chat about it, we will also discuss about it when we reach South Africa. See, to be honest we have not fielded well, I will accept that. We have not taken enough catches, so we are figuring out options and we will get better at it. Overall, we have improved our fielding standards, but slip fielding is something we are looking to improve,” he said at the post-match presser on Wednesday. Despite Pujara’s attestation of India’s deep-rooted malaise, it’s the three dropped catches in the first innings that helped the Lankans off the hook, allowing them to post close to 400. In doing so, many felt that it did not give Indian bowlers enough time to take 20 wickets and enforce a result.
In this line-up, Ajinkya Rahane is perhaps India’s best bet at slips. Unlike Kohli, Dhawan or even Rohit, Rahane has soft hands and rarely do you see him going hard at the ball. The Mumbaikar also knows his angles better than some of his peers, and hence is considered to be one of the safest fielders. But the team management has so far utilised him at slips only against spinners, and has preferred him at the gully position when pacers are operating. Kohli, however, saw nothing wrong in it. “Firstly, from his initial days, Ajinkya has always fielded at gully. It’s a difficult place, so we trust him there. First and second slip, if you practice well, you can get used to it. That’s not the case at gully. We’ve identified it as an area we need to work on,” the India captain explained.
While he may have a point, fielding in slips too is a full-time job that demands a fair degree of skill. In the past, you had VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, exclusively for this position. And apart from Rahane, only Murali Vijay has shown some amount finesse at this position. However, since the opener was returning to this series after a six-month layoff from a wrist injury, the team management refrained from using him at slips. “Somebody like Murali Vijay who has fielded consistently at first slip for us was out injured for over six months. So, the team management decided not to risk him, which is why we saw him fielding in the outfield this series. Hence a situation came up where we had to replace him with someone else,” Pujara added.
By the time India land in South Africa later this month, they ought to have ideally have identified their three specialist men for slips. Going by conventional wisdom, it should be Pujara, Vijay and Rahane at the first three slips, when India take the field in Cape Town next month.